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BOOK REVIEW | ‘Friendship Across the Seas: The U.S. Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’ by Agawa Naoyuki





In this valentine to Japanese-American maritime relations, author Agawa Naoyuki traces the process by which bitter enemies during World War II developed into friends.


Heretofore, this reviewer had assumed that the Japanese-American rapprochement was transactional: both nations, strongly anti-communist and fearful of the intentions of a menacing Soviet Union, were drawn together by a common enemy and had to learn to get along. Agawa’s analysis, drawn from extensive interviews with the dramatis personae, many of whom he worked with while minister of public affairs in the Japanese embassy in Washington DC, presents a very different and persuasive picture.


The stories of how former adversaries discover that they have much in common are always interesting and often quite touching. Ironically, it was the United States naval officers who fought against the Imperial Japanese Navy who became most sympathetic to IJN veterans’ desire to recreate a blue water navy, albeit one under closer civilian control.


Agawa weaves his narrative around Jim Auer, who came to Japan for the first time in 1963 as a newly-commissioned ensign. When the navy sent Auer to graduate school, he wrote a master’s thesis, which, based on newly-declassified documents, showed that, contrary to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, its minesweepers had, at the behest of the U.S. Navy, been involved in combat operations in foreign waters during the Korean War. One of them hit a mine, leaving one dead and eight wounded. Not surprisingly, the incident was covered up.



Auer’s discovery caught the attention of Edwin Reischauer, Harvard professor and former ambassador to Tokyo, who recommended PhD studies. Thus began Auer’s career as the historian of the post-war Japanese navy.


In the course of doing his research, Auer met several of the men who would later become instrumental in the formation of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). One of them, Kazutomi Uchida, later to become JMSDF chief of staff, recounted his experience at the Battle of Midway, discovering that men he had regarded as cowardly and spineless, wearing disheveled uniforms and lacking proper discipline, nonetheless charged forward against heavy odds, and won.


Later, visiting the Iwo Jima memorial in the U.S., Uchida is moved by the faces of the marines, three of whom died in subsequent battles.


At Newport, he boarded in the home of a woman whose fiancé, a submariner, was lost at sea near Japan. Afterward, she married a man who had lost his Buick car dealership due to competition from Japanese autos. Yet there was no animosity: friendships developed, not only with this couple but with U.S. naval officers as well.


After considerable soul-searching, Uchida concluded that he could best fulfill the will of his predecessors by showing them that he could become friends with their worst enemy. Due attention is also paid to the conversion of Teiji Nakamura, also to become a JSDF chief of staff, and others.



On the American side, Arleigh Burke, promoted to rear admiral for his exploits against Japanese forces in the South Pacific, arrived in Japan in 1950 in order to pursue the war with North Korea. Writing that he “did not like the Japanese even a little bit,” he vowed to be no more than “proper, cold, courteous, and distant.”


Living in a dreary hotel room, he was surprised to find fresh flowers added from time to time. After inquiries, he found that a poorly-paid maid, whose husband had been killed in the war, had put them there. She would not take any money, nor could the hotel management understand why he would want to give it. The incident, wrote Burke, “made me wonder if my dislike of the Japanese were sound” (p. 119).


He later championed efforts to strengthen Japan’s coastal defense forces by abolishing limitations on the speed and size of patrol boats, providing American frigates, and allowing the possession of aircraft to locate floating mines. Burke also promoted the JMSDF through offshore procurement.


Although the U.S. Congress opposed the idea of constructing equipment offshore using U.S. taxpayer money to provide ships to foreign armed forces, Burke arranged for the JS Akizuki and JS2 Teruzuki to be constructed in Mitsubishi shipyards, originally registering them as U.S. destroyers and then handing them over to the JSDF (p. 111).


When Burke died, and despite the many medals bestowed on him, the only decoration in his coffin was the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, first class, which had been presented to Burke by the Japanese government (p. 136).



There are moments of levity in this tale. By 1991, a much-modernized Japanese force was again sweeping mines, this time overtly, in the Gulf War. On days when they destroyed a mine, the crew was allowed to celebrate by drinking beer, which they did with gusto.


After a six-month supply of the beverage was exhausted in less than a month, the captain began to suspect that the crew was restricting mine disposal to one a day as an excuse to party. This led to a different kind of USN-JMSDF cooperation: the crew received permission to buy beer at the American post exchange. Even that proved insufficient: the captain had to ask the Dutch and German navies, both of whose countries are renowned for their love of the brew, for more.


As the years passed, the MSDF became better-trained and equipped. Agawa observes that, unlike the first postwar generation, today’s officers have neither an inferiority complex nor any great enthusiasm for the United States. Japan has been an affluent society for as long as the younger officers can remember. In some areas, their skills may be better than the U.S. Navy’s.


However, some level of awe remains, as in the reaction of an MSDF logistics officer to seeing a several-miles-long line of trucks delivering provisions of every kind to vessels about to be deployed: “We can’t do the same thing.”


There are concerns that daily contacts between the two navies may have lessened. One reason may be that the U.S. naval officers’ residential environment has improved. Thanks, ironically, to the efforts of the Japanese government, more personnel live on base or in exclusive communities and therefore interact less with Japanese.



A second reason is that, while the U.S. Navy’s budget and personnel have been reduced, the volume of work, if anything, has been increased. It is hard for those who are overburdened with daily tasks to seek exchanges with MSDF personnel.


A third concern is leadership. For the last several years, opines Agawa, the commanders of the Seventh Fleet and the U.S. Naval Forces Japan have not expressed strong intentions to promote exchanges. An explicit declaration of intention from the top is needed.


From time to time, incidents test the strength of the relationship. One was the Ehime Maru tragedy of 2001, in which a U.S. submarine collided with a training ship of a fisheries high school and the ship sank, killing nine students. Animosity was at least partially assuaged by the tremendous efforts made to raise the ship — which would not normally have been done under such circumstances — so that the bereaved could reclaim their sons’ bodies. An MSDF ship joined the difficult effort, with eight of the nine recovered and the American officer in charge personally contacting the family of the ninth to express his regrets.


The triple disaster of March 11, 2011, and Operation Tomodachi again showed the ability of the two navies to work together for damage control.


The older generation, having entrusted their successors with their mission, have retired without fanfare, simply saying, “Negaimasu, please take over.” When Auer, now director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, visits, the old friends convene for what they call the Tan-Tan Kai — dinner and reminiscences.



Agawa observes that, unlike the heroes of past Japanese militaries, these gentlemen have never fought in a war. While a blessing, it also means that, important as their efforts have been, no one knows who they are. If, as English poet Thomas Gray observed, the paths of glory lead but to the grave, the paths of peace lead to obscurity.


Thanks to Agawa, these heroes of peace now have names.



Book: Friendship Across the Seas: The U.S. Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force

Publisher: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2019

Translated by: Hiraku Yabuki

To Learn More: Click here to read more about the book or to purchase a digital copy through the Japan Library.


Buy the Book: Click here for options to purchase a print copy.




Book Review Author: June Teufel Dreyer, University of Miami







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